Westerly continued to flourish and grow in its role as a regional arts hub during 2017. While local cultural institutions added new and innovative programming, several local artists reached milestones and hardworking writers — some local and others with national reputations — attracted positive attention at our local bookstores and libraries.
The Westerly Library and Wilcox Park took center stage in the arts world this year and captured the first four of the 10 top stories. With a major milestone to mark during its 125th anniversary, library and park board members, volunteers, friends and staff members rose to the occasion in spectacular fashion and created a year full of memorable, meaningful events to celebrate the banner year.
In January, the library debuted the first of four tours, an hourlong journey the library when participants heard bits of history about the library’s beginnings — and about local industrialist-inventor, Stephen Wilcox, who donated the land on which the library is situated — as they were led into areas typically off-limits to library patrons such as the Tower Room and the glass-floored room.
In August, an exhibit called “Treasures Through Time” opened to rave reviews and tremendous enthusiasm when several artifacts from the library's Special Collections were taken out of storage and put on display in an exhibit fit for the finest museum. Items included a velocipede, a 6-foot-tall bicycle made in Westerly; the Stillman clock, which was recently on display at Yale; and portraits of famous (and infamous) people.
Longtime library volunteer Donna Celico created, wrote (with help from her friends), directed and presented an extraordinary production that ran for two nights last fall in the library’s auditorium. With her uncanny power of persuasion, Celico was able to coax a colorful, disparate group of locals to don elaborate costumes and play the parts of famous characters from children’s literature.
The Rev. Cal Lord was Billy the Kid, and the Rev. Sunil Chandy played the Little Prince. Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons played the role of the prince to Westerly Town Manager Derrik Kennedy's pauper, from Mark Twain's famous “The Prince and the Pauper.” Dan King, executive director of the Royce Family Funds, played Holden Caufield, from J.D. Salinger's “The Catcher in the Rye” and Lisa Pellegrini, the director of development services for the Town of Westerly, played the part of Alice in Wonderland.
Bruce Morrow, chairman of the board of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, donned a Pinocchio costume for the two-night show, and Colin Bennett, owner of High Street's The Malted Barley, tackled the role of the wolf from "Little Red Riding Hood.”
Other actors in the farce included Mal Makin, president of Professional Planning Group, as Pip from Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” along with Denice Marcey Pellegrino, owner of Melissa Ashley Brides, as Miss Havisham from the same novel; Alan Brinton, co-owner of Grey Sail Brewery, as Oliver Twist from the novel of the same name; and local lawyer Robert Lombardo as the Artful Dodger, a pickpocket, scamp and the leader of a gang of young criminals.
In July, noted artist Ian Newbury, whose work includes exquisite watercolors of local beaches, sunsets and storms, plus such iconic local spots as the library, the Ocean House, and houses and streets throughout Stonington and Westerly, created watercolors of the library and park to commemorate the 125th celebration. Newbury also designed the invitation for the library's 125th gala celebration, which took place in Wilcox Park in July on a glorious summer’s evening… an event which also should be included in any top 10 list of best events of the year.
Hope Valley native Billy Gilman kept himself glowing in the limelight during 2017, a year after findng fame again as a contestant on NBC’s “The Voice.” Not only was Billy invited to be the grand marshal for the 2017 Westerly-Pawcatuck Columbus Day Parade, but he dazzled the audience at his “Home for the Holidays” Christmas show at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence in December, when he sang new songs, old favorites and Christmas classics.
For the second year in a row, the United Theatre held a free folk festival in Wilcox Park. The United’s signature event drew thousands of music fans to Westerly for the music festival, which featured some pretty well-known musicians, including Blitzen Trapper, the Barr Brothers, Langhorne Slim, Michael Nau, Woods, The Low Anthem, My Bubba, Elvis Perkins, Luke Temple, Little Wings, Barna Howard and Westerly’s own Wild Sun. The United also had a full year of excellent programming, from children’s movies in the theatre and in Wilcox Park to a film festival and open houses.
Westerly musician Will Evans, a popular roots-rock musician on the regional scene, traveled to LA and took the stage at the famed Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard as one of five finalists in Cumulus Media's neXt2rock talent search, which garnered over 2,000 entries nationwide. The competition billed itself as a grass-roots talent search for "America's newest rock star.” Earlier in the year, Evans recorded a live CD at Savoy Bookshop and Café at the shop's first "Live at Savoy" concert series, a sold-out event.
Westerly’s Savoy Bookshop and Café — and its sister store, Bank Square Books in Mystic — continued to attract incredibly talented authors, both from the region and from far away, at its shops and other local venues.
In November, U.S. Marine Sgt. Craig Grossi and his dog, Fred, who were recently featured on NBC’s “Today” show, made an appearance as part of Rossi’s book tour for "Craig & Fred: A Marine, A Stray Dog, and How They Rescued Each Other.” In September, bestselling author Celeste Ng, whose second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” had just been released, spoke at the Wheeler Library in North Stonington to a packed audience. Ng’s novel is a New York Times bestseller and Amazon's #2 best-selling book and was named one of the best books of the year by dozens of publications.
In October, Lords Point artist Marion Kyff Dodd released her second children's book, "A Spooky Night" (a follow-up to her popular "Mystic by the A, B and Sea”), and made appearances at both bookshops, while last April, Mystic author Ruth Crocker released an amazing book called “People of Yellowstone" and signed copies at Bank Square.
But the highlight of the book year was when Min Jin Lee, a Korean-American author who has been compared to Dickens and Tolstoy, arrived in Westerly to discuss her new novel, “Pachinko.” The book, which follows one Korean family through four generations beginning in the early 1900s, tells a poignant, gripping story of a Korean family's struggle to fit into a society where they are unwelcome and treated poorly. The book has been named to nearly every “Top Books of the Year” list.
No story about the arts and culture in Westerly could be complete without a mention of the region’s musical powerhouse, the Chorus of Westerly. This year the chorus gave us concerts to remember and another year of a community Messiah sing. In the fall, the chorus introduced a brand new event, “JesterFest,” a special theatrical and comedic evening featuring Mike Miclon and Tom Murphy, former jester stars of “A Celebration of Twelfth Night.”
Later in the fall, music lovers were treated to a concert by Grammy Award-winning ensemble Chanticleer, and in November to the debut of the Symphonic Series, featuring the music of Great Britain, with “The Music Makers,” a moving work by 20th-century English composer Sir Edward William Elgarand. Just last month, we were treated to the second Messiah and an expanded Christmas Pops schedule. Of course, in June, the chorus gave us, as it always does, an incredible Summer Pops.
Westerly's Granite Theatre, too, celebrated another terrific year in 2017 with a season that featured comedy, drama, mystery and tragedy. From Alan Ayckbourn’s “Communicating Doors" to Ronald Harwood’s “Taking Sides,” and from Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir” (which gave Diana Blanda a chance to shine in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins) to Tim Firth’s “Calendar Girls,” “One Man, Two Guvnors,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” (Beth Jepson was a stand-out) and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (thank you Lisa Clough), the Granite season was full of talent and fun.
Honorable mentions must go to the annual Virtu Art Show and the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery of Westerly, two mainstays that just keep getting better and better.